AFC Winter Clear-Out?

January 5, 2021

Arteta has been very clear about the fact we first need to see some players go before we see some players coming in during the Winter Transfer Window.

Kolasinac headed to Schalke on-loan and we wish him the best. He will basically leave us in the summer.

Saliba has joined Nice on-loan until the end of the year. Edu confirmed that Saliba will pursue his progression there and rejoin us. I am glad he will get some playing time. I would have been happier if he went to another EPL outfit but oh well…

So who should / is going to leave us next?

  • Sokratis’ days at AFC seem numbered. France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Scotland and even England are possible destitations.
  • Mustafi is reportedly on his way out and I would be ok with him leaving. Barcelona may be interested (odd if you ask me…) and Monaco as well as Koln…
  • Chambers seems likely to stay and so does AMN
  • There is talk about El Neny going back to Turkey but I do not think Arteta will entertain offers for El Neny
  • There are rumours about Edu/Arteta considering to loan out Willock, Nelsson and Nketiah. Not sure how I feel about them leaving.
  • Rumours also about Guendouzi being sold to Hertha Berlin as of this winter already?
  • Lucas Torreira may be called back from his loan to be sold to an Italian club too…
  • Any other players you would like to see out?


January Signing Will ‘Kill’ Smith Rowe

January 4, 2021
Don’t put Smith Rowe on Death Row

If you had asked me before the Chelsea game how important it was to sign a really good creative attacking player during the January window I would have said “vitally so.”

We were on a terrible run of results and, never mind not scoring, we weren’t even making chances. In some games the opposition goalie was so untroubled by our efforts that he could have set up a camp bed between the posts and had a 90 minute nap.

But then Emile Smith Rowe was brought into the team, we beat Chelsea with ease and won our next two games, with ESR playing a significant role in all three victories in, yes, a creative attacking position.

Once, in 2008, Arsene Wenger was asked about the possibility of new signings and said: “…we have done such a great job with the young players that you are concerned ‘Do we kill a young player or not by bringing another player in?'”

So where does that leave us in 2021? Do we sign a player like Isco or Hassem Aouar? And if we do, what does that do to the future career of young Emile? Do we risk “killing” him?

We have had plenty of false dawns with young ‘stars of the future’ at Arsenal, but Smith Rowe really does look to have what it takes to be a top player and is very highly regarded within the club.

If we bring in an established star it’s likely that ESR’s’ opportunities will be reduced to Europa League appearances and occasional Premier League cameos from the subs’ bench.

And then what? He won’t progress as quickly as he would with regular first team appearances and may quite possibly become disillusioned and start thinking about a move.

So my instinct – now – is to say we should not go in for a new Number 10 or central attacking midfielder in this window, although this course of action is also not without its problems.

Would it mean putting too much pressure on one young player to consistently deliver, right at the start of his senior career? What if he got a bad injury just after the window closed? In any case, wouldn’t it be good for him to have competition for his place?

As far as a potential injury scenario goes, we have other players who could (in theory) take up the No 10 role. The obvious one is Willian, but there has been nothing about his performances since he signed for Arsenal that makes you think he could do the job with anything like the energy and commitment of Smith Rowe. Saka could be tried there, but it would be a shame to remove him from the wide right attacking role where he is proving to be so productive.

So where does that leave us? With a tough call for the club and the manager.

If they buy a big name they will be accused of stifling the chances of a brilliant home grown talent; if they don’t and ESR gets injured or suffers a drop in form, they will be slaughtered for not having brought in cover.

I would take the risk, put my faith in ESR and keep my (financial) powder dry until the summer transfer window when new signings can be made in a more strategic way. It’s a risk, but one that could pay off big time. If Smith Rowe continues to progress, we might enter the summer window feeling that a new playmaker is no longer top of our priority list and that the money can be spent on improving us in other positions.

If we do decide to bring an extra face in this January, I hope it is a short term loan move for an experienced player who is not a guaranteed starter. In that regard, Isco is not a bad option, provided he doesn’t mind being second fiddle to Smith Rowe.

RockyLives


Goal Blizzard Buries Baggies: West Brom Report & Ratings

January 3, 2021
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

A hugely encouraging performance on a snowy night in the Midlands saw Arsenal come away with all three points, a clean sheet and four goals to the good.

With the important caveat that we were facing the leakiest defence in the Premier League, we should all just take a moment to enjoy a confident, dominant performance.

Two goals in the first half, two in the second and some excellent displays from individuals (with the young contingent shining again) saw us comfortably through what might have been a difficult away game. When you get to the player ratings you will see a very rare thing: a three-way tie for Man of the Match.

We know that Sam Allardyce has, in the past, frustrated Arsenal by getting committed, well-organised performances out of inferior players. He has only been in the West Brom job for two weeks but I thought his message would be starting to rub off on them and they would give us a tough challenge. Thankfully, the walrus magic is not happening yet.

Mikel Arteta stuck with some of the young players who have fuelled his team’s recent revival: Saka continued as right attacking midfielder and Smith Rowe took up the drifting sort-of No 10 role he occupied against Chelsea and Brighton.

Mari was preferred at CB despite Luiz being available: a pleasing example of El Patron showing that if you play well enough when you get your chance you can keep your place even when supposedly more senior players comes back from injury or suspension.

Laca was started as the central striker again (the position he filled so well against Chelsea and in the second half against Brighton), with Aubameyang as the wide left attacker (I assume Martinelli’s game time is being carefully managed after such a long lay-off, so he was on the bench).

We started the game on the front foot with Tierney causing all sorts of problems for Albion down our left and Saka looking dangerous every time he picked up the ball. Two of his crosses almost found Auba at the back post.

Kieran Tierney opened the scoring with a brilliant solo effort on 23 minutes, “giving the eyes” to the West Brom defender as if he was going to cut inside, then pushing the ball outside him and going the long way round to collect it. The defender was just about able to recover before KT turned him inside out again, sliced into the box and curled home a beauty into the far post. “Kieran Thierrny” as someone said in the comments last night.

The goal was no more than we deserved for our pressure, movement and attacking intent and four minutes later we had another – and this one was pure Wengerball. We moved the ball from side to side probing for an opening. Bellerin made the telling forward pass to Smith Rowe, who pulled off a Bergkamp-like turn and immediately slipped an acute-angle pass to Saka, who pinged it straight to Lacazette. Laca slid a first time pass into the box, right into the stride of Smith Rowe, who squared for Saka to tap into an empty net.

The speed of thought and movement was delicious. It shows what can be achieved with one-touch passing and fast give-and-go football (it was crucial to the goal that both ESR and Saka went like the clappers the moment they had laid off the ball).

We had more opportunities before half time but went into the break comfortably on top as the weather conditions worsened.

The pitch was noticeably whiter when we came out for the second half and I’m sure that played a part in a sloppy period of play for the next 15 minutes or so. The West Brom players had no doubt been given a going over by Allardyce and they upped their game. But players from both teams were slipping and the ball was holding up in the thick slush, making it risky to play across the back.

West Brom got the ball in the net, but the goal was correctly ruled out for an earlier offside (I noticed how well our defence had stepped up as a unit to put the Baggies striker off).

On the hour mark we got our third. The rejuvenated Lacazette started the move, driving through the middle of the park before laying off to Saka out right. Saka got into the box and put in yet another lethal cross. The West Brom central defender, panicked by the presence of Aubameyang, sliced his clearance off the post. It came out to Smith Rowe who belted in a powerful shot well save by the ‘keeper, only for Laca to tuck away the rebound.

Four minutes later after another great run and cross from Tierney, Lacazette had his second and Arsenal’s fourth. It was Laca’s fifth goal in four games.

There were opportunities for more goals later on, particularly as the snow eased off and the conditions improved, but in the end we settled for 4-0.

West Brom had very few chances, a result of their own struggles and our resolute defending. Leno had to make two good stops (one early and one late) but otherwise was not troubled. The early one resulted from Xhaka doing one of those ridiculous toddler tumbles where he waits for the slightest contact in his back before toppling forward like a chimney being demolished. The ref rightly ignored this nonsense and West Brom almost scored. Cut it out Granit – I know it has worked in the past to win us cheap free kicks, but referees are wise to it (and you). It was a shame because apart from that he had a really good (if unspectacular) game.

We are now three points behind Chelsea in sixth with more winnable league games coming up: after we play Newcastle in the FA Cup next weekend we then have Palace and Newcastle again in quick succession.

It’s early days for our recovery and the memory of that truly dismal run is still fresh in all our heads, but we do seem to have turned some kind of a corner with the introduction of the energetic young players and the shift in formation to what some call a 4-3-3 and what I call a 4-2-3-1.

The excitement among the players seemed positive (I loved the way Luiz was way off the bench to hug Saka after his goal) and there are grounds for more optimism than we have had since last season’s FA Cup win.

Player Ratings

Leno – 7

Not that busy, but was faultless when called on. His handling in difficult conditions was excellent.

Bellerin – 6.5

Picked up a yellow early on and was substituted on 54 minutes. He was involved in Saka’s goal and made a number of good forward runs, but also was a little sloppy in possession once or twice.

Holding – 8

He was really dominant at the back and dealt with everything that came his way. His passing out has improved a lot and he seems very comfortable with playing out from the back.

Mari – 7

I like the big Spaniard. He never looks flustered and defends well. He even sprayed a couple of long David Luiz-type passes.

Tierney – 9 (Joint MoTM)

Many have said that our wee Braveheart is a future Arsenal captain. Whatever ‘ingredient X’ is, he has it in spades: skill, energy, strength, attitude. What a great young player.

Ceballos – 7

Some really good moments from Dani, although there was also some loose passing at times (at least most of his wayward passes were ambitious, forward-looking ones that he overhit). Along with Xhaka he formed a reliable central midfield partnership, keeping the ball flowing from side to side and out to our dangerous flanks.

Xhaka – 7

An understated performance but one that should not be overlooked. He did simple things well all night long and that is not to be sniffed at.

Smith Rowe – 8.5

His play for the Saka goal reminded me of Bergkamp. I can give no higher praise than that. He continues to look like he should be an automatic starter except when needing a rest.

Saka – 9 (Joint MoTM)

The English language is going to have to come up with some new superlatives for this young man. Most of all I love his fearlessness. He plays on the front foot and expects things to come off. He is on course to be a world superstar.

Lacazette – 9 (Joint MoTM)

Laca’s recent performances are a lesson to all of us who are tempted to write off players when they’re going through a bad patch. Five minutes ago the Frenchman was “dead wood” who should be offloaded in January. Now he’s back to being a vital part of our attacking threat. The difference, of course, is that we have shifted to a new formation with a Number 10 (ESR) which allows him to have players much closer to him as the lone striker. The previous system left him isolated and having to try to hold up the ball and hang on to it, which is just not his game. In short, formation and team selection can have a huge impact on whether a player seems great or rubbish – it’s not always the player’s fault. Laca gets joint MoTM not just for his two goals, but for his all-round effort and involvement.

Aubameyang – 7

See above. Auba is taking a lot of criticism right now, but we have not been playing in a way that best suits his game. However, last night he showed more effort and determination and was very unlucky not to be on the scoresheet. He was inches away from two Saka crosses and had other chances that were saved or blocked. Like Laca, it will come good for Auba soon.

Subs

Maitland-Niles – 6.5

Ainsley was a little shaky when he came on, but still managed to contribute reasonably well. He needs more regular game time.

Willian – 6.5

I have been giving him a bit of a hard time lately. Last night he did a couple of really useless things (giving the ball away too softly) but he also had a couple of very nice moments. He’s going to have to work his way back into first team consideration with excellent outings in fringe games or as a sub. In that regard, this appearance was OK and no more.

Willock – 6.5

Joe got 16 minutes and was energetic.

RockyLIves


He is the Walrus: West Brom Pre-match and Predicted Line-up.

January 2, 2021
Allardyce giving a team talk in the home dressing room

Temperatures have plunged, snow has fallen and ice clings to the nation’s trees and rooftops; and somewhere in the Midlands, squatting on an ice floe, a blubbery, jowly creature is licking its flabby lips. Fat Sam the Walrus Man is waiting for us.

Tonight’s opponents, West Bromwich Albion, may be rooted near the bottom of the table but their new manager loves nothing more than putting one over on the Arsenal.

Sam Allardyce took over from Slaven Bilic on December 16th. In his three games in charge, Albion have taken one point, scored one goal and conceded nine.

Overall this season they have conceded more goals (35) than any other Premier League team. So we have a team that can’t score (us) against a team that can’t stop conceding (them): what you might call a resistible force meeting a movable object.

Anyway, don’t let West Brom’s woes lull you into a false sense of security.

For a start, the single point they earned under their new boss was away at the champions, Liverpool. It suggests Allardyce has lost none of his skill for getting a team of lumpen journeymen to perform well against much better opposition (while losing to teams more on their level).

Whether these days we count as ‘much better opposition’ than West Brom or ‘more on their level’ I shall leave up to you.

But I reckon this will be a tough battle for the boys in red and white, with Allardyce in his time-honoured Jurassic fashion sending out his players to ‘get about’ Arsenal. You can just hear him in the dressing room, telling the Baggies’ players that Arsenal a bunch of fancy-dan southern softies who don’t like it up ’em. “Let them know you’re there,” he’ll be saying, “get stuck in.”

Our players will need to win some physical battles before they can win the tactical ones.

Nevertheless, we have sufficient quality to come away with all three points provided that Mikel Arteta is prepared to learn the lessons of the last two games (against Brighton and Chelsea). In those matches we switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation and gave some of our exciting young players their head. It worked and we need to stick with it at West Brom.

This is the sort of game we have to be winning if we are going to salvage any kind of respectability this season. We know that players like Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli are up for the fight, even away in the Midlands on a freezing early January evening. Can we say the same about some of the more senior players?

My heart sank when I saw that Willian is available to play tonight after missing the last couple of matches because of “illness”. Surely El Patron will not start the hopelessly out-of-form Brazilian? Right? Please tell me I’m right.

Luiz is also back after his equally mysterious “illness” but it does not look as if Partey will be ready yet, although perhaps there will be room for him on the bench.

I don’t foresee too many changes, although I think Luiz will come in for Mari despite the latter’s decent performances. There is also a big question mark over our captain. Aubameyang was really poor against Brighton and we were a much better team when Lacazette took up the central attacking role. Laca’s skills are much better suited to it than Auba’s.

I suppose El Patron might consider starting Pepe to give one of the younger players a rest, but I hope not. We have a full week after tonight before our next game. When players are on a roll the best thing is to point them downhill and step out of the way.

I expect this line-up:

Leno

Bellerin – Holding – Luiz – Tierney

Elneny – Xhaka

Saka – Smith Rowe – Martinelli

Lacazette

Here’s hoping that Elneny cuts out those ‘moments of madness’ that he’s been having in the last few games and that Xhaka brings the same level of performance that he did against the Chavs.

This game will probably feel more like the Brighton match than the Chelsea one, with West Brom keeping 11 men behind the ball for much of the game (that’s the reason I have gone with Laca ahead of Auba in the starting line-up). They will be looking to score from set pieces, so we will need our midfielders to avoid silly fouls around the penalty area.

With a bit of luck, skill and effort we could administer a proper thrashing like Leeds did to West Brom the other day (5-0), but this is far more likely to be a close game. I’m looking for 2-1 to the good guys.

Come on you Gunners.

RockyLives


Predictions for 2021 (Arsenal and Others)

January 1, 2021

Happy New Year to all who read, write for, comment in and visit Arsenal Arsenal. Whether you’re died-in-the-wool regulars or occasional drifters you’re all welcome here.

As we enter a new year it’s fun to imagine what it might hold in store, from a footballing perspective.

So here’s your chance to make your own predictions for Arsenal in 2021 and also for the big prizes in English and European football.

I’ll give you my forecasts, but please add your own in comments.

  1. Where do Arsenal finish in the league in 2020/21?
  2. How far do Arsenal get in the FA Cup?
  3. How far do Arsenal get in the Europa League?
  4. Who ends up as Premier League champions?
  5. Who else will make the Top Four?
  6. Who will win the Champions League?
  7. Who will win the FA Cup?
  8. Who will win the Europa League?

Here are my best guesses:

  1. Sixth
  2. Semi-finals
  3. Semi-finals
  4. Liverpool
  5. Man City, Aston Villa, Man Utd.
  6. Juventus
  7. Liverpool
  8. Villareal

RockyLives


Is There An Aubameyang Problem? Brighton Report & Ratings

December 30, 2020
Auba and out?

Two consecutive wins in the league. A clean sheet. Further encouraging performances from our young players… all in all this was as a good a trip to the seaside as I can remember since the day I won £2.43 on the Penny Falls.

A Lacazette goal (less than a minute after he came on as a substitute) turned out to be the only score in the game as we beat Brighton and Hove Albion at the Amex stadium.

We may not have actually built momentum just yet, but we have surveyed the ground and got the architect’s drawings, so we can see that momentum building is on the way.

But the game raised (and possibly answered) one or two questions about our personnel.

Let’s start with the positives:

Bukayo Saka demonstrated again that he is fast becoming the most important player in our current squad. He plays with a maturity beyond his years and, if I think back to his early outings last season when, let’s remember, we were hugely impressed with him, it’s clear that his decision making and all-round game play have improved exponentially.

Pablo Mari: in my last match report I got my wires crossed and called him a Brazilian when, in fact, he is Spanish (as I’m sure you all know). But in the last two games he has played with an un-showy confidence that bodes well for his future with us as first-choice back-up to Gabriel.

Emile Smith Rowe: so modest he doesn’t even bother with a hyphen. I’m not someone who watches our reserve games or our pre-season friendlies so I had seen little of ESR until recently. But against the Seagulls he picked up where he left off against Chelsea, showing a quickness of thought, touch and movement that puts some of his senior colleagues to shame (yes Willian, I’m looking at you).

Bernd Leno: I had my reservations about whether we’d kept the right stopper when we let Martinez go in the summer and kept our big German. After his penalty save against Chelsea and another excellent game against Brighton those doubts are assuaged. He made a couple of top quality stops in this win. Given how hard Brighton were to break down even at 0-0, imagine how tough it would have been if one of those chances has gone in and given them a lead to defend. Leno made sure that never happened.

Now to the negatives:

Mohammed Elneny: in what was otherwise a reasonably tidy outing, Mo nevertheless had two or three moments of madness that almost cost us. If he’s going to play that defensive midfield role he needs to cut those mistakes out of his game. He had a couple of similar loose moments against Chelsea and one day soon these sorts of blunders will cost us dearly.

Finally, I come to Aubameyang. Here’s the question that’s been bumbling around in my brain, rolling from one side of my head to the other, enjoying the sheer emptiness of the space: did our poor performances as a team this season sink Auba’s form, or did Auba’s form help sink our performances as a team?

I’m inclined to the former explanation: namely that our general dysfunctionality and lack of any attacking central midfield/number 10 options meant we have been so crap at chance creation that our poor Gabonese star had had no real chance to shine.

But the angst of our long goal-less and chance-less run seems to have knocked the stuffing out of Auba and he is half the player he was at the end of last season.

Against Brighton I have little doubt that if we had started with exactly the same line-up that walked out to face Chelsea we would have been ahead in the first half and might well have won comfortably.

Lacazette is much better as a central striker in the system we have been employing for the last two games.  We have mostly played without a central attacking midfielder this season (Willian, Ceballos and Laca himself have all been tried in this role with varying degrees of ineffectualness). But Smith Rowe is an actual CAM and his presence changes everything. He can hold up the ball and he looks for a striker to play off. With the best will in the world, that’s not the role to which Auba is suited. Lacazette is much better suited to it because he holds up the ball better, is more committed and, frankly, works harder.

Before you all jump on me, I am not writing off Aubameyang. I love him. He brought me such joy just a few months ago when he won the FA Cup for us. But that was in a team that sat deep and hit (better equipped) opponents on the break. It suited him.

I think Auba can still work wonders for us this season, particularly in big games. But if I were the boss I would rest him for games like Brighton and West Brom, where we are likely to be facing the low bus. Right now, for me, he is not in our optimal starting eleven (although I know that, as captain, he is likely to start more often than not).

Against Brighton Auba did OK. He was really unlucky not to score when he got on the end of a Saka cross only for the ball to fly off the knee of the Brighton ‘keeper, Sanchez.

But he did not conduct the press with the vigour that Lacazette does; he did not chase down their goalkeeper with the determination of Martinelli; and his touch and passing left a lot to be desired.

He is a man out of form who maybe needs a rest.

But that’s enough about Auba. Here are a few overall thoughts about the game – take them or leave them: I’m no tactician and, as Roy Walker always encouraged us in Catchphrase, I can only “say what I see.”

Brighton are struggling this season but they knocked the ball around really well, were confident in possession and in playing out from the back and seemed to be trying hard for each other and their manager. It made me think two things: one, they’re staying up; and two, the overall quality of play in the Premier League is now ludicrously high. 

This game (as Redders mentioned in the comments) had a sense of “after the Lord Mayor’s show” about it: after the dynamic win against Chelsea it was something of a crash back down to earth. But that’s not completely surprising:  the West Londoners wanted to out-play us and consequently gave us space in which to play; the East Sussexers* were less ambitious and dropped 11 men behind the ball whenever we had possession, making it harder to get any fluidity to our play.

Nevertheless, this formation of four at the back, two holding midfielders, a CAM (Smith Rowe), two wide attacking midfielders and a central striker looks like our best bet for further success this year.

Next up it’s Fat Sam the Walrus Man, smarting from a 0-5 thrashing at the hands of Leeds United. 

We can guarantee two things: one, Sam will spend the next few days on tightening up his defence, so there’s no chance of us achieving a similar result; two, he’ll tell his players that Arsenal “don’t like it up ‘em”, so brace yourself for some heavy tackles and all-round crappy behaviour from the West Brom players.

Still, there’s enough about us now to feel a degree of confidence that we can come away with the points.

RockyLives 

Player Ratings

Leno – 8

Some very good stops when it was 0-0. But that bit of ball-juggling on his own six yard line gave this observer palpitations.

Bellerin – 7

Not everyone in AA comments was happy with Hector, but I thought he did pretty well.

Holding – 7

One misplaced pass put us in danger, but other than that Big Rob was committed and solid and even set up the move that led to our winner.

Mari – 7

I’m liking him. No fuss, but exudes a confidence in his own ability and never hides from receiving the ball.

Tierney – 7

Not as dominant as in the Chelsea game, but a typically committed outing. He managed to get to the byline a couple of times to get crosses in.

Elneny – 6

He’s tidy, he makes himself available at the right times, but in the last two games he has had several kamikaze moments. He needs to cut it out because it will cost us.

Xhaka – 7

A decent follow-up to his good outing against Chelsea. 

Saka – 8 (MoTM)

Most of our best moments in this game came from Bukayo. His excellent (and strong) run set up our winner for Lacazette. He was unlucky not to have another assist after putting Aubameyang in with a great chance. The future of Arsenal. The only criticism is that he took three corners all of which hit the first defender.

Martinelli – 6.5

The packed ranks of Brighton defenders made it hard for Gabriel to have the same impact as he did against Chelsea, but he worked hard and had some good moments.

Smith Rowe – 7.5

I’m liking this lad more and more. His touch and speed of thought and play are exceptional. He’s only going to get better and should now be considered a first team automatic choice expect when he needs to be rested to avoid over-playing.

Aubameyang – 5.5

His touch and passing were off, his half-hearted efforts to close down the opposition goalie and defenders compare badly with those of Martinelli and he can’t hold up the ball like Lacazette. He is still very important for Arsenal but Arteta needs to figure out a better way to use him.

Subs

Lacazette – 8

What more can you ask for? Came on and scored the winner inside less than half a minute with a clever and skillful finish. Resumed his impressive work rate from the Chelsea game.

Ceballos – 6

Came on in the 81st minute. Ran around a bit.

Maitland-Niles – 6.5

Only got one minute plus stoppage time, but did some decent time-wasting hold-up play in the Brighton corner.

  • Did you know that “Sussex” derives from “South Saxons”? Likewise Essex is “East Saxons”, Wessex is “West Saxons” and Middlesex is “Middle Saxons”. But it does beg the question: whatever happened to the North Saxons? Why don’t we have a place called Nossex?


Brighton Away: Let’s Get Ready to Rumble

December 29, 2020
Mods and Rockers get stuck in during a previous fixture in Brighton

It’s all well and good that we beat Chelsea at the weekend, but that game is over and done with and it will mean next to nothing if we can’t follow it up.

We all got a bit ahead of ourselves earlier this season after winning at Old Trafford. We said things like “this will kick start our season” and “now just watch us fly.”

I watched us fly…. right into the nearest wind turbine. It turned out we followed up that solid victory against a traditionally ‘top six’ side with a run that brought us only two points out of a possible 21 in our next seven league games. We were properly mangled.

So tonight we need to see a performance that is every bit as committed, energetic and dynamic as the one against Chelsea. Most of all, we are going to need to take some fight to the seaside, because Brighton will be giving us nothing for free.

After Brighton we have games against West Brom and Crystal Palace: so that’s three fixtures from which an Arsenal team would normally expect to take at least seven points and possibly all nine.

But we have struggled against so-called “lower” teams this year. We scraped a fortunate win against Sheffield United, we lost to Wolves and Burnley and were second best in a draw with Southampton.

One reason has been our inability to break down teams who park the bus against us (by the way, how come no-one ever uses the phrase ‘park the bus’ any more? It’s low block this, low block that, when any fool can see that it’s just the same old tactic of sticking a Routemaster in front of the goal and hoping for the best. Perhaps we can compromise, swap the Routemaster for a single-decker and call it “the low bus”).

Chelsea played us with the intention of dominating the game, so we were not faced with the usual 11 men behind the ball scenario and, accordingly, we were able to play more fluid football.

We can’t expect the same approach from Brighton, but there are still grounds for optimism. The introduction of Martinelli and Smith Rowe against the Chavs, with Saka as the right wing back, massively improved the way we played.

Those three linked well with each other and with our fullbacks and also with Lacazette in front of them and Xhaka behind (who was more advanced than usual because he knew Elneny was guarding the back door).

Our full backs got to the byline more instead of having to cross from short of the opposition penalty area and Smith Rowe proved a very effective fulcrum for our attacking moves and worked well with Lacazette, who had a good all round game.

We have seen the likes of Willian, Pepe and Aubameyang used in most league games this season and they do not seem to have the right skillset to break down double ranks of defenders.

Which brings us to the question of team selection. Gabriel is out with a positive Covid test; Partey is still on the way back from injury and Luiz and Willian are both unavailable until January 31st for mysterious reasons.

The one important player who did not start against Chelsea but who is available tonight is the captain, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. He was on the bench on Saturday, presumably being protected as he recovered from a calf strain, and you would imagine he will start against Brighton.

I don’t envy Mikel Arteta having to make that call. If it was down to me I would go with exactly the same eleven who started in West London. They have earned the chance to do it all over again and, frankly, Martinelli is better suited to taking on the “low bus” than Auba is. But Aubameyang is the biggest star in the team and also the captain, so it’s highly unlikely he’ll be left out.

One option would be to play him centrally instead of Lacazette, but that role really does not suit him and, in any case, Lacazette deserves to keep his place.

Here’s the line-up I expect Arteta to go for:

Leno

Bellerin – Holding – Mari – Tierney

Xhaka – Elneny

Saka – Smith Rowe – Aubameyang

Lacazette

Martinelli to be kept to the bench (officially on the grounds that he needs to be eased back in carefully after his long injury, but really so that Auba can be played).

If I’m right it will be a shame, because I cannot wait to see that wonderful partnership between Tierney and Martinelli working its magic down our left flank again.

Whatever team we put out, let’s all hope they can build on that Chelsea win with another solid three points. It’s time to really watch us fly, this time with added turbine-avoidance.

If we get a decent run going, who knows what this season could yet hold for us?

Come on You Gunners.

RockyLives


Martinelli & Smith Rowe: Rest Them or Unleash Them?

December 27, 2020
The Future

We’ll have a full pre-match report for the Brighton game tomorrow, but to stir the pot (as it were) here’s a big conundrum that Mikel Arteta has to grapple with: does he start Smith Rowe and Martinelli against the Seagulls after their hugely encouraging outings against Chelsea on Saturday?

There’s no doubting that the pair injected a sense of energy, skill and pace into our team against the West Londoners and, based on that, it seems obvious that they should start against Brighton.

And yet… Martinelli recently returned from a really serious injury and has played a fair bit of football in the last week (just over a half against Manchester City and 70 minutes against the Chavs). In the Man City game he also took a hefty blow which forced him off early.

With that in mind, would we be taking too much of a risk by starting him tomorrow? He looks like our most exciting and dangerous attacker so the last thing we need is for him to suffer another long absence.

Likewise with Smith Rowe. Although he has not had the same injury problems as Martinelli, he has had very limited first team experienced and almost all young players who make a breakthrough into the senior line-up risk hitting a wall if they’re over-played.

There’s also the question of Aubameyang’s return. He was on the bench on Saturday and is likely to be fit to start against Brighton. As the captain you’d have to assume he’s an automatic pick, but who gets dropped? Martinelli? Smith Rowe? Saka?

Based on the evidence so far this season, I say we look better with that young trio than with Auba, but can you really see El Patron making that call?

All I know is that if our starting line-up includes Auba, Pepe and Willian with no place for Smith Rowe and Martinelli I will feel somewhat deflated.

What would you do if you were Arteta?

RockyLives


Granit Xhaka: an Apology (plus Chelsea Report & Ratings)

December 26, 2020
Xhaka – I’ve always loved him

It has been brought to my attention that certain words in my preview of yesterday’s home game against Chelsea could be construed to have been critical of Granit Xhaka.

That was certainly not my intention. When I wrote: “One thing that will sink my spirits instantly will be if the team sheet includes the names ‘Willian’ and ‘Xhaka,'” what I really meant was: “Granit Xhaka is a crucial member of our squad and is vital to our chances of success today.”

Likewise when I referred to his contributions this season as being “truly awful” I meant by his own high standards and that he is a vital cog in our armoury.

I would like to apologise for any misunderstanding arising from my poor choice of words. And now to the game itself:

Woo-hoo! That was something, wasn’t it? Who expected that result? (Well, apart from Total Arsenal, who predicted a 4-1 win to the boys in red and white, which was close enough).

A 3-1 victory over Chelsea was exactly the late Christmas present we all needed. We’re not out of the woods by any means, but we can now glimpse a bit of daylight through the tree trunks in the distance.

There were encouraging signs even before kick-off when we saw what looked to be a genuinely exciting line-up. A front three of Martinelli, Lacazette and Smith-Rowe exuded potential, particularly with Saka and Tierney also in the starting eleven. Mari was brought in at centre back alongside Holding.

It would be nice to think Mikel Arteta chose this selection of players for pure footballing reasons, but it seems likely that his hand was forced, at least partly. Aubameyang, although on the bench, was returning from injury, while Gabriel was ruled out for Covid reasons.

Right from the off the presence of Martinelli and ESR made a big difference to the intensity of our play. Those two young men showed more commitment and determination in the first half than many of our senior players have shown all season.

In that half we terrorised the Chavs down our left flank, with Tierney linking up really well with Martinelli and ESR. Elneny was playing the role of holding midfielder, allowing the aforementioned Xhaka to move into a more central mid position. And lo and behold, in this role our lump of Swiss marmite discovered a whole new concept: the forward pass.

It was one of Xhaka’s forward passes that led to our opening goal. Picking up the ball in the middle of the Chelsea half he looked up and saw Tierney advancing down the left wing. His pass was perfectly placed and beautifully weighted for our young Scot to race on to, skin the Chelsea defender Reece James and get into the box. James made an ill-advised lunge for the ball and brought down Tierney. The TV pundits tried to say that Tierney had “bought” the penalty by looking for contact and going down too easily, but close watching of the replay shows that James clips the back of his left foot, causing him to fall. One hundred per cent a penalty. Lacazette stepped up, sent Mendy the wrong way and passed it into the net. One nil to the Arsenal.

Ten minutes later Xhaka went from provider to scorer, banging home a superb free kick from outside the Chelsea penalty area.

We supporters were pinching ourselves. Could we really have scored not one but two goals? Against a strongly fancied side sitting fifth in the league?

We carried on with the pressure in the second half and got our just reward in the 56th minute when an attack down our right (for a change) saw Bellerin lay the ball off to Smith-Rowe who cut it inside for Saka. What followed next was either a brilliant piece of improvisation by the young Londoner or a very fortunate sliced cross that ended up in the net. For me there’s no doubt he meant it.

We had chances to put the match completely beyond Chelsea’s reach (an Elneny shot crashed off the underside of the crossbar, Martinelli was unlucky with an overhead kick and Lacazette forced a good save from Mendy in a one-on-one which really should have been buried).

But we didn’t, substitutions were made, we lost our rhythm and Chelsea finished strongly. Abraham chested a goal in in the 85th minute and a few minutes later Chelsea earned a penalty of their own when Mari (who had been having a decent game) brought down Mason Mount.

I can’t have been alone in fearing that, if it went to 3-2 with five minutes of added time still to come, we would have struggled psychologically to hang on. And God only knows what throwing away a three goal lead would have done to our confidence for the rest of the season. But cometh the hour, cometh the big German. Bernd Leno dived to his left to save brilliantly from Jorginho and calm our nerves.

Chelsea’s heads went down and we saw out the final minutes without incident.

All in all an excellent display from the starters given how low we have been on form and confidence, with encouraging performances from many players. If Smith-Rowe and Martinelli have not booked their places in the starting eleven for Brighton on Tuesday night then there’s no justice. Indeed we looked quite a bit shakier when Pepe and Willock came on for Martinelli and Smith-Rowe.

Player Ratings

Leno – 8

Had very little to do but boy did we need that penalty save. If we had let slip a three goal lead it would be hard to see us recovering psychologically.

Bellerin – 7

Captain on the night. Led by example, was very solid and drove forward well at times.

Holding – 7.5

Big Rob has become very reliable and is now very much a first choice defender alongside Gabriel.

Mari – 6.5

Giving up the penalty will hopefully be a learning experience, but overall a good outing from the tall Brazilian Spaniard.

Tierney – 8.5 (MoTM)

Brilliant outing from Tesco, both defending and attacking, where he will have given Reece James nightmares and won the penalty for our first goal.

Elneny – 6

Mo did OK but had a few dicey moments, losing possession in dangerous areas.

Xhaka – 8

Made one, scored one, passed forwards and even won a trademark free kick with his classic baby fall. A really good answer to his critics. He appeared to enjoy playing in a slightly more advanced position.

Saka – 8

A great talent. Always intelligent with his running and passing and scored a stunner.

Martinelli – 8

You could tell he was frustrated not to get on the scoresheet but whenever he got the ball you could see the looks of fear in the eyes of the Chelsea defenders.

Smith-Rowe – 8

His touch and control are already better than most of the rest of the squad and we really benefitted as a team from having someone playing a proper Number 10 role. He felt like the oil in our machine last night.

Lacazette – 8

Outstanding effort from Lacazette, who ran all game long closing down the Chelsea defenders, linked up well with his team mates and took the penalty with aplomb. He really thrived with having Smith-Rowe behind him instead of being asked to be the main hold-up player. Scored the pen and should have had another when he went one-on-one with Mendy.

RockyLives


Balogun Off? Tuchel In? Can a Win Over Chelsea Ease the Sense of Crisis at Arsenal?

December 26, 2020

Ex BBC journalist David Ornstein, whose reports are usually on the money, says that our promising young striker Folarin Balogun may leave on a free transfer, with Liverpool a likely destination.

My thought on hearing the news was: “Well, why wouldn’t he go to Liverpool?” It’s a sad indictment of the relative standing of the two clubs at the moment.

Meanwhile there are reports that Arsenal are thinking about sacking Arteta and bringing in Thomas Tuchel, the German coach who recently left Paris St Germain. Tuchel did a great job at Borussia Dortmund and got PSG to a Champions League final.

Both of these stories point to a club (our club) that is currently being very badly managed and is slipping deeper into crisis.

The Tuchel story may just be ‘paper talk’, but the Balogun one seems genuine and is particularly embarrassing. Our inability to secure an up-and-coming youth talent speaks volumes about how things are being done (or not done) behind the scenes.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we need an overhaul at the highest levels of management (by which I do not mean Arteta, but the team above him).

Today’s game brings an even sharper focus on our problems. We entertain Chelsea, who are currently fifth in the table and 11 points ahead of us.

Not many Arsenal fans will expect us to win, but you never know. I start every match day feeling optimistic and this one is no different, even though that may seem delusional.

One thing that will sink my spirits instantly will be if the team sheet includes the names “Willian” and “Xhaka.” Unfortunately I expect it will. Arteta seems to want to persist with certain players despite all the evidence that their contributions to our campaign have been truly awful so far.

Their continued presence is, I am sure, partly to do with the absence of fans in the stadium. If supporters were present I think Willian would either be well away from the first team or would have significantly upped his game. As it is he can coast through matches doing absolutely nothing and still get picked for the next game. He is starting to look like one of the worst signings ever made at Arsenal (although there is stiff competition for that title).

Injury news is that Aubameyang will have a late fitness test for a calf strain; Partey is not back yet but Martinelli may be available after suffering bruising to his shin when he was clobbered by the Man City ‘keeper on Tuesday.

Here’s the line-up I expect from El Patron:

Leno

Bellerin – Holding – Gabriel – Tierney

Ceballos – Xhaka – Elneny

Pepe – Lacazette – Aubameyang/Martinelli

If we lose, you can expect those Thomas Tuchel stories to heat up.

If we win, well, it might be just the boost we need going into a run of games from which we should be expecting to take points.

Come on You Gunners.

RockyLIves